The prophet Jeremiah is one of the most compelling figures in all the Old Testament.
He lived in a town just north of Jerusalem some five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. As a young man, he was called by God to be a prophet to the people of Israel. Though he protested because of his youth, God promised to be with him and to give him the words he should speak.
His basic message was that, unless the people repented of their sinfulness and turned back to God, the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. Needless to say, his preaching was not very popular, especially with the leaders of his day and he suffered greatly because of his prophetic ministry. One time he had been thrown in a cistern and left to die. In today’s first reading, he had been placed in stockades by the king. As people walked by they spit on him and ridiculed him.
Unfortunately, his prophecies came to pass. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and its inhabitants were marched into exile. Jeremiah himself was exiled to Egypt where tradition tells us he was stoned to death.
Jeremiah is sometimes called “the prophet of the passion of God”. Except for Jesus Himself, no other prophet suffered as much at the hands of his own people. In fact, perhaps no other prophet was most like Jesus in the way he lived, preached and, ultimately died.
In today’s first reading, we are given a glimpse into the mind of this great prophet. Because of all that he suffered, he felt “duped” by God. If he could, he would just as soon abandon his role as prophet to the people. But he cannot. As he writes, “...it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” The fire burning within him is so strong that he cannot ignore it. He must speak out. He cannot hold it in.
What is that fire if not his deep, burning love for God?
It was because of his love for God that Jeremiah had to warn the people of the disaster that would befall them if they did not change their ways. It was because of that love that he put up with rejection, harsh treatment, torture and, ultimately, death. In God, Jeremiah experienced the “love that is better than life” which we read about in today’s Responsorial Psalm. Love drove him to not keep the message of truth to himself but to proclaim it to the whole world without counting the cost.
In Jesus, we see the love of God made manifest. In Jesus, we meet a God we can see and touch. All those who throughout history have taken the words of today’s gospel to heart, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” did so because they fell in love with Jesus. It was not because they liked discipline or had more willpower than anyone else. They simply loved Jesus so much that no amount of difficulty, suffering, hardship or rejection could keep them from following Him.
When we love, we becoming willing and able to sacrifice.
This is an experience that all of us can understand. Parents willingly lose sleep to feed their babies in the middle of the night or comfort them when they are sick. Young people in love will do anything to spend time together. They are willing to move mountains to see each other. Older couples willingly care for each other when one of them becomes ill. Love does not make difficult situations easier. Rather, it gives us the strength to overcome obstacles, to pull down barriers and to work through difficulties for the sake of the ones we love.
Without love, Christianity makes no sense. From the outside, it looks like just a system of rules meant to deny us pleasure and fulfillment. Once we fall in love with Jesus, however, everything changes. The rules become ways that we can learn how to love God. They teach us how to please Him by doing His will. Our focus becomes not on ourselves and our own fulfillment, but on God and His glory. Our priorities shift from this world and its passing pleasures to the world to come where we will praise our Heavenly Father forever. The inconveniences, difficulties and rejection that come from following Jesus become more bearable because of the love that burns within us.
If your faith seems like nothing more than jumping through hoops, if you are here today merely to meet your Sunday obligation and not because you have a burning desire to be united with Jesus in the Eucharist, then God wants to touch your heart today. He wants you to know that He loves you. He wants you to know that truth down into the depths of your soul. He wants that love to be the driving force in your life. All you need to do is simply welcome God into your heart. It is a simple step that will change everything.
Without love, the cross is simply two pieces of wood meant to torture, kill and oppress people. Because of Jesus’ love, it has been transformed into the means of salvation for all the world. That love that drove Jeremiah to speak truth to power, that drove Jesus to give His life for the liberation of the world and that drove countless saints to feed the hungry, heal the sick and counsel the doubtful can be ours for the asking. It is the “love that is better than life” which God offers to all those who believe in Him and are willing to follow His Son. It is the love that is made manifest in the Body and Blood of Jesus which we will share. It is the love we are called to bring to a world which is pining for the Living God.